Thursday, February 25, 2016

What Political Campaigns and Volleyball Coaching have in Common

by Kathy DeBoer, AVCA Executive Director

I know you are busy recruiting and coaching, but have you noticed that it’s political campaign season?  If not, just keep doing what you’re doing; if the cacophony has not interrupted you yet, enjoy your peace.

I’ll admit it interrupts me because I let it.  I’m a certified news junkie: I start with NPR in the morning, read the Wall Street Journal headlines while waiting for my coffee at Starbucks, tune-in to POTUS in my car, listen to “On the Media” podcasts on airplanes, watch the debates, read TIME magazine, and end the day with the New York Times on my I-pad.  This overindulgence in the fourth estate has led me to observations about the similarities between campaigns and coaching.

Our number one commonality seems to be that no matter what is actually happening we must act like we are succeeding! Both coaches and politicians do this with great skill and remarkable conviction.  In politics they call it ‘spin:’ a third place finish is touted as a win; an opponent’s good showing is belittled as cheating; meanness is called straight-talk; blandness labeled as pragmatism. 

In coaching we actually have slogans repeated to encourage this mindset: ‘Catch them doing something good,’ and ‘Focus on the process instead of the results.’ I’m not criticizing this behavior; in fact, on the coaching side of things, I find it laudable and actually a bit amazing. 

I was a mentor for a college coach whose team had an awful season.  Our weekly chats were inspiring to me (I know I was supposed to be the mentor J).  He just never gave up on his team even when they found new ways to lose, he fought the natural tendency to get discouraged at the end of October, and all the way through the last weekend, he found reasons for positive momentum. 


Political pundits may call it spin, but you, who live with a scoreboard that designates a ‘loser’ every match, have found authentic ways to stay optimistic, positive and doggedly determined.  What a gift you give if you can pass this characteristic on to those you coach.
Second, relentless criticism is just part of the gig.  We pick at Bernie for his hair, Donald for his makeup, Hillary for her bathroom breaks, Marco for his sweating . . . You get picked at because a player transferred, because your team didn’t win as many as last year, because you didn’t take the next step in the tourney, because you have too many injuries, because a player is unhappy, because a parent is unhappy . . . .  

It takes fortitude to embrace a leadership role.  Criticism is easy. Running for president and having everything you do and have ever done publicly analyzed, mocked, and dissected, is hard. Cynicism is easy.  Inspiring players to be better than they think they can be when both the scoreboard and their statistics say they are not very good, is hard.   I almost lost a promising young staff member this week because she needed encouragement when all I was offering was critique.  The misstep brought me back to critical moments with players who I almost or at times did, lose. Blaming others is easy.  Embracing a challenge with all your heart, knowing that, if you lose, your heart will certainly break, is hard.   
Third, in both politics and coaching, nice guys/gals finish last often enough that it is very tempting to join the dark side. I had a coach say to me this year ‘every time I do the right thing for a kid, I get burned.’  Those who cheat kids, lie to their colleagues, negatively recruit, and run players off, are winning enough that the ‘everyone is doing it’ excuse for bad behavior starts to look like the prudent choice.  Yet, I am struck by the number of you who talk openly about ethical behavior, who refuse to buy into the narrative that money and pressure will inevitably corrupt us, and who practice ways to stay centered and focused on what is faithful behavior in dealing with your players and colleagues. 

Today, I’m choosing to stay hopeful that this will eventually be the story-line that emerges in this political campaign.    In the meantime, as I celebrate my 10th anniversary as your executive director, I’m thankful for you and the many examples of passionate, authentic leadership you show me every day!

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